A maneki-neko is a traditional Japanese lucky charm made in ceramic or porcelain statue, representing a cat sitting and raising its paw (s) to ear level, and which is frequently found on storefronts, near checkouts in shopping malls, pachinko salons, etc.
Maneki comes from the verb maneku which in Japanese means "to invite" (in the sense of making come) or "to greet", and neko means "cat". It is therefore literally the “inviting cat”. The tradition wants that one of these cats raising the paw in the stores to attract the fortune (pecuniary) is put. The left paw is supposed to attract customers, the right paw money. There are thus cats raising both legs and more rarely all four legs.
Maneki-neko are often found in homes, especially in the form of money boxes, key rings or other objects. However, the happy maneki-neko is sometimes associated with or confused with the bakeneko or nekomata, a type of evil and devious yokai.
Although the first maneki-neko are believed to have appeared at the end of the Edo era (1603-1867) in Japan, the first documented evidence comes from the 1870s, during the Meiji era. Cats are mentioned in a newspaper article dated 1876, and there is evidence that kimono-clad maneki-neko were handed out in a temple in Osaka during this time. A 1902 advertisement for the maneki-neko indicates that at the beginning of the twentieth century they were popular.
Before that, the origins of maneki-neko remain unclear. One theory links the origin of maneki-neko, or at least its popularity, to the rise of the new Meiji government. In its attempts to westernize Japanese society, the government banned sexually-oriented talismans, often displayed in brothels. After the disappearance of these talismans, the maneki-neko took their place as lucky charms, perhaps because their gesture of invitation reminds of a woman inviting to enter the brothel.
Other people have noted the resemblance between the gesture of the maneki-neko and that of a cat doing its toilet. An old Japanese belief states that if a cat rubs its face, a visitor will arrive, and an even older Chinese proverb (also known in the West) states that if a cat rubs its face, it will rain. So it is possible that we think we can attract visitors with a statue of a cat rubbing its face.
It is not known when maneki-neko first became popular in the United States, but they were known there at least in 1963, when Patricia Green mentioned them in her book, The Cult of the Cat. Nowadays, the maneki-neko is very present in Chinatown in New York. Street vendors and street shops sell many varieties of this cat, which are bought mainly by tourists. They are often bought for folklore.